The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Brutal slaying in Golden Gate Park stirs San Francisco’s raging debate over homelessness

The Golden Gate Bridge with the San Francisco skyline in the background on Jan. 24, 2012. (Eric Risberg/AP)

On the morning of May 24, a gardener working in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park spotted something out of the ordinary. At the eastern edge of the scenic park, less than 100 yards from Haight Street and its bustling shops, lies a small, shallow pond called Alvord Lake.

In that lake floated a dead body.

On Monday, authorities charged two men in connection to what they described as a brutal incident of vigilante justice among the park’s homeless population.

According to prosecutors, Stephen Billingsley and Nikki Lee Williams attacked fellow homeless person Stephen Williams because they believed the victim had masturbated near children in the park.

The two suspects are “transients without long-standing ties in the city,” San Francisco Police spokesman Carlos Manfredi told the San Francisco Chronicle. Police are still looking for additional suspects.

Billingsley, 19, has been charged with murder, torture, conspiracy, elder abuse and assault, according to local media. Nikki Lee Williams, 36, has been charged with conspiracy, assault, elder abuse and false imprisonment.

Billingsley’s nickname is “Pizza Steve,” prosecutors said. Nikki Lee Williams is known simply as “Evil.”

The gruesome killing, which allegedly stretched over three days, comes at a tense time for San Francisco. The city, long synonymous with hippie culture, is in the midst of a raging debate over homelessness.

Although the debate has been decades in the making, it has intensified in recent years as the rise of Silicon Valley has driven up rents and increased complaints about the homeless.

In February, a San Francisco tech entrepreneur wrote a widely circulated — and widely criticized — open letter to the mayor complaining that homeless “riff raff” were turning the city into an “unsafe” and filthy “shanty town.”

S.F. ‘tech bro’ writes open letter to mayor: ‘I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people’, ‘riff raff’

And on June 29, in an unprecedented act of coordination, at least 30 media groups in the Bay Area will devote blanket coverage to homelessness and possible solutions to the problem.

Adding urgency to the discussion is a growing sense that young, occasionally aggressive, often drug-addled transients pose a danger.

“Homeless youth in San Francisco experience a mortality rate in excess of 10 times that of the state’s general youth population,” according to a recently published study, which found suicide and drug or alcohol abuse as the largest cause of death for homeless youth.

The May 24 killing was not the first slaying allegedly committed by a homeless youth against another homeless person in Golden Gate Park.

On Oct. 3, three young “drifters” killed a young Canadian backpacker in the park after tying her up and robbing her, according to prosecutors. Those same three suspects are also charged with killing a popular yoga instructor on a hiking trail outside the city two days later. Acquaintances described the trio as “tweakers” who used methamphetamine and displayed angry outbursts, according to the Chronicle.

‘Homelessness is a visible and pressing concern’

Homelessness and crime aren’t new problems for the city.

In the summer of 1982, the San Francisco Examiner published a month-long undercover investigation called “Nightmare in Wino Park” that described drug trafficking and violence in what had been envisioned as a utopian space for the homeless.

Thirty-four years later, the city is wrestling with the same issues.

“Our city is facing challenges. We can’t deny that,” Mayor Ed Lee said on May 31 as he announced a budget with an increase of $32 million for anti-homelessness programs, according to the Examiner. “Neighborhood crime is up. Homelessness is a visible and pressing concern.”

The city’s struggle with homelessness has garnered national attention.

In February, software developer Justin Keller wrote to Lee complaining that he “shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people.”

“The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city,” he said in an open letter that went viral to widespread criticism. “They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted.”

Last month, media across the Bay Area announced they were banding together to provide a one-day blitz of homelessness coverage on June 29.

“We are all fed up. We feel there is not enough movement and accountability on the issue,” Jon Steinberg, the editor in chief of San Francisco magazine, told the New York Times. “We want the full force of the Fourth Estate to bear down on this problem.”

Twice recently, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (Vt.) has also mentioned the city’s homelessness problem.

“I’ve just been in San Francisco for a few hours now, but it really is stunning to see the number of people in this city who are sleeping out in the street,” he said during an unscheduled stop last month.

“We are seeing a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires while people sleep out on the streets of San Francisco,” Sanders told a large crowd on Monday.

‘They appear to be lost souls’

Perhaps the biggest headline regarding the homeless in San Francisco, however, came in October when three young drifters were arrested and charged with two murders.

Morrison Haze Lampley, 23, Sean Michael Angold, 24, and Lila Scott Alligood, 18, stole a gun from an unlocked car near Fisherman’s Wharf on Sept. 30 or Oct. 1, according to authorities. A couple of days later, the trio allegedly shot Audrey Carey in the head as she rested in Golden Gate Park. The 23-year-old Canadian woman was backpacking across the West Coast.

Two days later, Lampley, Angold and Alligood ambushed Steve Carter, a yoga instructor, as he walked his dog along a trail in Marin County, authorities said. The drifters allegedly killed Carter and also shot his dog, which survived. They were arrested several days later in Oregon driving Carter’s car.

Angold has pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the Carter slaying and is expected to testify against Lampley and Alligood when their trial begins this fall.

The two slayings shocked San Francisco and intensified scrutiny of the city’s homeless community.

“All three people seem to be living off the radar,” Marin County Sheriff’s Lt. Doug Pittman told ABC7. “The best way I can describe it? They appear to be lost souls.”

Some San Franciscans said the city’s current transient population shared little with previous generations of beatniks and hippies.

“I’m not trying to group everyone together, but there is a totally different, very negative element of drug dealing that I would like to get rid of,” vintage store owner Cicely Hansen told the Chronicle. “To me, they’re not street kids. They’re vagrants who choose not to be part of the culture. They’re just hanging around hoping for free money. If you were here in the ’60s, you gave something back, even if it was just street art. You weren’t just taking up space and being vile.”

In community meetings, locals said the city’s homeless now have a confrontational edge to them.

“We have a new type of homeless,” Flip Sarrow, 58, said during a meeting in mid-October, shortly after the arrests, according to the Chronicle. “This is something different. They are aggressive, they block the sidewalk, they believe that they own the street.”

“Unfortunately, the system and the enforcement from our district attorney is such that there are no consequences for these type of people, and they get the correct impression that they can do anything because there’s no consequences,” Chuck Canepa, president of the Cole Valley Improvement Association, said at the same meeting. “This fosters the kind of thing where all of sudden two people are dead and nothing’s going to change. It’s going to happen again.”

‘Evil’ and ‘Pizza Steve’

It happened again on May 24 when Stephen Williams’s body was found floating face down in Alvord Lake. He died from “multiple traumatic injuries,” according to the medical examiner’s office.

Stephen Billingsley and Nikki Lee Williams — no relation to the victim — attacked the 66-year-old because they believed he had masturbated near children in the park, prosecutors said in court documents, the Chronicle reported.

The two men wanted to deliver “street justice,” according to the charging documents.

A video obtained by NBC Bay Area shows part of the alleged three-day series of attacks.

It shows two men forcing the older man into the waist-high water.

“In the pond you go,” shouts a man recording the incident. The cameraman can be heard cheering as one of the attackers, believed to be Nikki “Evil” Williams, punches Stephen Williams and dunks him in the lake.

The alleged attack continued the next day, when, three blocks away in the Haight district, “Pizza Steve” Billingsley and others stomped on and struck the victim until he blacked out, according to court records reviewed by the Chronicle.

On day three, “Pizza Steve,” “Evil” and others allegedly beat Stephen Williams unconscious once again, then dragged him into the lake.

That’s where his body was found the next morning.

As many as eight or nine people may have participated in the attacks, authorities said. Police are investigating whether two gangs that operate in the park were involved, according to NBC Bay Area.

Billingsley walked into the park’s police station after the attack and confessed to being involved, investigators told the TV station.

Both suspects are being held on $1 million bond. Their attorneys declined to comment on the case to NBC Bay Area.

Authorities said Stephen Williams’s death was “incredibly tragic.”

“All human life is precious,” Max Szabo, a spokesman for the San Francisco District Attorney, told KTVU in a statement. “And whether you live in a palace or in a park, we will pursue those who resort to violence.”